This past December, my husband proposed a radical idea. Take our 2 toddlers (ages 3 and 1) on a 3 week trip to Europe with my in-laws. When it comes to traveling abroad, my husband and I are very similar--we like what we call “underappreciated” countries like Mongolia or Madagascar, and we’re not afraid of underdeveloped infrastructure or lack of 5 star resorts. But we also like to travel light and fast--2 characteristics not commonly associated with traveling with 2 toddlers with food allergies, eczema, and all those accompaniments.
Side Note: My in-laws had never been to Europe, despite having cousins in France, so they were enthusiastic about the trip. They’re your stereotypical elderly Chinese though, and spent most of the time before, during and after the trip bemoaning the high costs of everything in Europe. They still had a great time, even with high prices and crazy toddlers!
We set a budget and spent every night (after the kids were asleep, naturally!) for 2 weeks in our home office researching, planning, and booking the trip. I was in charge of plane tickets, lodging (mostly Airbnb apartments), and restaurants. My husband was in charge of train tickets, activities, and travel for his parents (who would take a 1-week tour without us as well as a few 1-day bus tours so they could maximize their time in Europe).
In the second week of December, we headed off with our 2 toddlers in tow, for what we called “Our Grand European Adventure.”
There are many fantastic blogs on the web telling you what to pack, the best travel stroller, etc. for a trip abroad with young kids. Instead, I’ll give you a high-level summary of the most important points to keep in mind before and during your travels, regardless of what backpack you buy or what toys you bring on the plane:
Toddlers don’t care where you are. Everything is new, different--and therefore, exciting. They didn’t know what the Eiffel Tower is, but they loved the touristy little carousel next to it. Adults might be bored with staying in the suburban part of Munich, but toddlers think it’s awesome that there’s a butcher shop on the corner to gawk at and were similarly fascinated by the colorful mailboxes on the street. Don’t be shy about pointing those little things out to them! It helps them learn about differences and similarities in other cultures and places.
A German butcher shop
When considering attractions, think like a toddler. Things they can’t touch or places where they have to be very quiet, like an art museum...eh, not interested. BMW Welt in Munich, where they could crawl in and out of fancy vehicles and get up close to police and fire dept cars? Yes, please! Also, I found lots of helpful parent blogs recommending kid-friendly restaurants which turned out to be a big hit with both our kids and ourselves!
BMW Welt in Munich
A routine is whatever you make of it. We knew going in that despite our best efforts, occasional naps would be disrupted, potty training might regress, tantrums would be thrown. However, we prioritized what was most important every day. If there was something special to see one day, we’d take it easy the day before with regular naps and walks close to our rental apartment. The day of, we’d encourage mini naps while on the train or in the stroller. And we did our best not to pack in too many activities in a single day.
The toddler brain is a sponge. We were amazed by how much our toddlers actually took in during the entire trip. Before reaching each country (we visited 6 during our trip), my husband and I explained to the grandparents and kids a little about the country and city we were visiting (language, customs, basic greetings, food, etc.). We didn’t expect the kids to retain much of it, but were blown away when they suddenly responded to friendly waiters/waitresses with “Danke,” “Merci” or “Gracias” depending on where we were. So make it a point to share info with your kids so they can be a part of the entire experience.
A charming neighborhood in Nice
Trust your toddler. In the beginning, the kids complained about all the changes, the different foods and (from my newly potty trained 3 year old) the “small” and “weird” public toilets. I was so exasperated one day when she refused to go potty in a tiny Czech cafe restroom that I told her, “We are traveling! Things are DIFFERENT when we travel. If you don’t like it, then next time, we will NOT take you when we travel!!” (I may have said this rather loudly.) After that, amazingly, she would repeat “Things are different when we travel” whenever we encountered something unusual during our trip that she didn’t particularly like. I realized the power of a good explanation that day, and found that often times, when we explained to the kids what was going on, they accepted the changes without (much) fuss and moved on.
Plan ahead and make the best of your time. Restaurants in Europe, especially in France and Spain, serve dinner late--often not opening until the kids' 8pm bedtime. We were bummed at first. But we decided to take the kids out to lunch instead, and either got take out or cooked dinner at our apartment in the evening. We began picking up wine and snacks (desserts the kids shouldn’t eat, charcuterie famous in the region, etc.). After they were in bed, we’d savor our little snack in the living room while discussing our plans for the next day. Every time we arrived in a new city, we’d check into our apartment and then head to the local shops where we’d shop for this in mind (groceries for breakfast and dinner, plus some treats for the adults in the evening). It gave us something to look forward to!
Vytopna Railway Restaurant in Prague
And finally, the question we’ve gotten many times from our friends… “Will your kids even remember this trip so young?” I’m sure as time passes, their memories will fade, but that's expected. Since that trip, our daughter often reminisces about things we did on the trip and we enjoy looking at all our accumulated pics and videos. Occasionally, she asks where we can get those pains au chocolat we had in Paris. ;) More importantly, my husband and I will always treasure those amazing memories of our family trip abroad.
*Traveling to Europe, or anywhere, might seem particularly intimidating right now. We happened to be planning our own trip when the attacks in Paris occurred. But we felt that the more our children learn about other places, cultures, and people, the better citizens of the world they'll become. And that can be in Europe or anywhere, even in our own remarkably diverse country!
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